My father’s burial anniversary was a year ago last week. And this is the same week when pufflings start to appear all over the streets of Heimaey. When leaving their tunnel nests in the cliffs, they are meant to fly out to sea with the moonlight as a guide, but they get confused with the street lights in town. So they end up flapping up and down the streets looking for a way out to sea, but still unable to fly.Its become a custom to catch these little pufflings and release them, by throwing them off a cliff, which is the best way to get them safely to fly to sea. They will then live on the ocean until they come back to the cliffs around Iceland next spring, and dig more tunnel nests to make more puffling babies. I went with 4 friends, 3 of which had never seen a puffin, and we all got to release a puffin. My cousin had caught 2, and a friendly family also puffin throwing from the same cliff gave us 2 more to release. I think they were excited to see tourists, a life of the outside world still in Iceland, and we were so warmly welcomed on the island. My aunty invited us in for coffee, despite covid fears, and the swimming pool was open (and empty) but they still turned on the slides for us to race down over and over like little kids. We had an amazing meal at Slippurinn, and hiked up Heimaklettur for some stunning sunset views. We were lucky with incredible weather, and managed to eat brunch the next morning outside in the garden of my father´s childhood home. My paid my father´s grave a visit, paid our respects and lit some candles. I think he would have been happy to see us. RIP
Its an annual tradition to make it out to Hestasport, once a summer, for the most epic of all horse trips. Appropriately, they call it the Wilderness Expedition, and it is one of the longest and most difficult journeys you can make on horse back – 7 riding days, 25-40km per day.
Despite covid tests and limited flights, eleven people still made it to Iceland for the trip. Every single person was German or German speaking, and luckily two of our staff were too. Unlucky for me, I only had the two horse men and two super jeep drivers to speak Icelandic with, although everyone forgave me for english.
We were meant to ride north over Hofsjökull but didn´t quite make it as close as we wanted. Ingólfskáli was our destination, but we made a bit of a shortcut from Vesturdalur to Laugafell.
We had the most incredible rain when riding 50km back out Austurdalur, soaked completely thru and thru to the bone (us and the horses), but we made it to the abandoned farm of Merkigil where a hot shower and elctricity finally awaited us again.
We rode down and up thru ´amazing canyon´, as the name suggests, before taking the last sprint back to civilisation. I had two friends with me who lost quite a bit of weight and put on some muscle instead, but how grateful and respectful I am to these amazing animals – the Icelandic horse truly is the Icelander´s best friend.
July was a fast and a furious month of summer living in Iceland, and with the borders open, covid was just as quick to return. Its been amazing to watch how adaptive, and respectful, society is, picking up where things left off last time, but this time with less hysteria. Covid living has normalized somehow, and hopefully others also feel the anxiety melting away as real life keeps keeps on keeping on.
It seemed like a blurry dream, when things were just getting better and better and everyone had almost forgotten the 2 m rule, but instead of taking the next step to open up more (people were so excited for concerts, street festivals and late night bars), the 2m rule rule and a gathering ban returned.
Þjóðhátið on Heimaey in the Westmann Islands was cancelled, which was probably simpler than trying to hold it for only 5,000 people when the regular attendance is closer to 20,000. Weddings and baptisms have been delayed for a second time, realistically not earlier than September or October. Airwaves in November has little or no chance of being organized, and worst of all, Gay Pride and Menningarnótt will cease to be in 2020.
Hiking and natural hotspring hunting continue, and my one and only horse trip as a tour guide just barely slipped thru the cracks – two weeks later and it wouldn´t have happened. A mandatory 5 day and double covid test requirement will kick in August 19, deterring the majority of tourists to come visit Iceland at all.
I had gotten used to kayaking, biking and horse back riding alone, or in small groups, and the covid friendliness of those activities made them feel extra familiar to return to. I didn´t miss the lines to the swimming pools, but at least the swimming pools stayed open this time.
Nauthólsvík beach is a charmed destination, in any weather, and fishing on the sea or on a river bank also does something for your sanity. Water is a type of landscape therapy to me, and it makes me feel less stranded on this island.
Next visit to the westfjords for Guðný and me was the opposite end of the westfjords: Norðurfjörður. We took Paula with us, driving from Staðaskáli up the eastern road to Hólmavík. We stopped for our last hot meal and some groceries, and set up our campervan from Camper Iceland near the Norðurfjörður harbour to wait for our boat the next morning. We took a dip at Krossneslaug before falling asleep, and then shuttled out to Látravík at Hornbjarg bright and early with Gjá Strandferðir.
Our plan was to spend one day around the Hornbjarg cliffs, hiking to the famous Kálfatindar and finding some puffins to oogle. It was raining when we arrived and foggy when we finally set up camp, but in between we got a break in the clouds and sunshine right on time for our bird watching and cliff climbing.
We camped beside the Ferðafélag íslands hut near the lighthouse, and got invited into the hut by a group of Icelandic friends. They were having a small party, and invited us for a warm chicken and rice dinner, chocolate cake and wine – all we did in exchange was wash some dishes!
The next 3 days, we were meant to make our way south to Reykjafjörður, but a storm was brewing and the wardens warned us to get to shelter no later than the next night. So after an easy 16km day with no packs, we now had to make it nearly 40km with packs in 36 hours. It wasn´t an option to sit and wait for the storm, and then wait it out, at the lighthouse, so we headed off optimistically. We made it 18km that day, camping at Barðsvík and crossing its beautiful beach around midnight.
We waited for low tide the next morning to make it out and around the fjord to Bolungarvík, and all the way into the bottom of Furufjörður where we met a nice local family. They directed us to the best place to cross the river, as the glacier melt from Drangsjökull would now start to affect our hike. We had to make it up and over to Þaralátursfjörður where the most threatening glacier river awaited, and we waded over it nearly waist high merely hours before it flooded and became impassable.
Our home stretch was to get up and over to Reykjafjörður, where we dropped down into a field of Kria birds, angrily protecting their nests as the wind and rain picked up. We got into a hut around 8:30 or 9, soaked to the bone, and jumped into the pool to watch the full force of the storm swing in by 10:30.
For the next 3 days, the entire Hornstrandir Nature reserve was on lock down, all hiking shut down and hikers ordered to seek shelter. We spent our 4 nights in the coziest of shelters, and I felt a pang of guilt for the others I knew were only in some lightless, unheated emergency shelters.
We didn´t quite have enough food for 3 extra days, but we had neighbours in the valley to befriend. We exchanged work for food with a man named Hallgrímur, who was painting the inside of his house, and we received no less than boiled arctic char and reindeer meat for our time. We bathed twice daily, played cards and read books, in no rush to leave.
When the boat could finally pick us up, the seas calmed, but remained brown, and many of the poor Kria nests had flooded and drowned the younglings. We said goodbye to our new friends and promised to come back and see the house we helped paint, and even if the weather was good, try to get stuck and stay a while.
Icelandair starting resuming some kind of scheduled flights finally on June 15, and since then its been a gradual increase in normality. It comes at such perfect timing, as summer blossoms to its brightest days and everything has finally turned green. The highlands have opened and all the hard to reach places, including Hornstrandir and secret fly fishing salmon rivers.
Seeing as I had no work this summer, a problem most tour guides shared, I got to travel domestically with plenty of free time to explore local rivers. I visited a few for the first time, including Norðurá and Blandá, where friends help run these lodges. I got to work a few days at Blanda, with the lovely Erik Koberling, and even fished my first salmon of the season there in the lower beat.
I visited Þverá and Kjarrá a handful of times, also working a few days at each lodge. I only lost 1 sea trout at Þverá, but got to take 4 home after spending a day driving the guides Gími and Egill around fishing. I fished at Haukadalsá and caught nothing, but had endless happy hours on the riverbank with the other more serious fishermen.
The highland roads have opened, making some of my favourite summer destinations finally accessible. I´ll find myself in the Hveravellir pool atleast 3 or 4 times this summer, definitely twice at Laugafell pool, and visit Kerlingarfjoll a couple of times. The hot pool there is a bit of a hike, so I may not make it into the pool there everytime, but its important to find refuge in a mountain cabin with a good supply of natural hot water springs.
Now that covid restrictions are relaxing, its time for more yoga and golf, and taking advantage of all kinds of sales and package deals around the country. I can finally stay at Icelandic hotels as a guest, not a guide, and even go horse back riding as a tourist. I can play golf and check out the new spa at Húsafell, the Canyon Baths. Going out for bike rides and hosting jam sessions with musicians is finally okay, and we´ve been making great progess with our band Tunesdays and our first (soon-to-be-hit) single ´Fluffy Cougar Bear.´
The days are still long, nearly 24 hours long frankly, and even politics seem normal again. On the presidential election held June 27th, Guðni Th. was voted in again, and will be again and again for years to come. Hopefully our PM and government can keep the country out of any major crises, and life and economics can slowly creep back to normal, pre-covid. Although, it´s been kinda nice to slow down and simplify, so hopefully it doesn´t happen too fast.
Guðný and I lived together all winter, but rarely saw each other due to work, travel and other normal things pre-covid life. When summer came around, she moved back to her countryside farm and we had to make a 3 part summer adventure plan to make sure we wouldn´t miss eachother too much.
Part 1 took us to a yoga retreat in Önundafjörður, hosted by the lovely Iris and Andrea behind jógabíllin, the yoga campervan that drove around Iceland in May giving everyone free, outdoor yoga classes. We stayed at Hotel Holt Inn and practiced yoga on the nearby pier, and extended our stay in Önundarfjörður with an extra night at Flateyri. There we stayed in the most beautiful home, a recycled work in progress by the talented designer Halfdán Pedersen.
To drive all the way to Flateyri for only a weekend was ambitious, so we added a few nights of adventures before and after the yoga retreat. We started on the southern and western ends of the Westfjords, bathing 3 times on some days in natural hot springs. Our first dip was at Guðrunarlaug at Laugar in Sælingsdalur.
We camped at Rauðisandur beach and spent some time with the birds at Látrabjarg. We weaved our way thru all the small towns, Patreksfjörður, Tálknafjörður and Bíldudalur, and stopped for amazing coffee at Simbahöllin in Þingeyri.
We visited Dynjandi, more than once, and camped another night at Selárdalur after visiting Hrafnseyri, the museum dedicated to Icelandic hero Jón Sigurðsson.
On our way home from the westfjords, we shortened the drive by taking the ferry from Bjarnslækur to Flatey, where the ferry Baldur would continue on with our car to Stykkisholmur, but we could jump out for the night and stay at Hotel Flatey. The weather was misty and cold when we checked in, but it didn´t discourage us from going for a seaswim. T
he next day was as sunny as summer weather gets, so we held a pop-up yoga class and invited the whole island. That only too a short walk, and with a turnout of nearly 20, it was almost 100% attendance from the island´s inhabitants.
The rise of a pandemic in Iceland was awfully creepy, watching the city of Reykjavik first, then the whole country, spiral into one big ghost town. We never made it to complete lockdown, but as the number of cases ticked higher and higher, our voice of authority Víðir pushed us off the streets and into our homes. The first public hit was March 15, when a gathering ban was put on meetings of 100 people or more. This affected some events and some businesses, but people took it quite light heartedly. Then, only a week later, March 22 saw the gathering ban crash down to 20 (except for basic needs like grocery shopping), which affected everyone. The day to day lives of people, especially with a 2m social distancing rule, was taught, and learned, but every day we realised more ways in which this could affect us. We couldn’t´t get our hair cut. We couldn’t´t go to the bank without an appointment. There were no bars or pubs left open. The pools had shut. Hotels were deserted. Flights were cancelled, and even the airport became empty.
The new cases of Covid-19 spread faster than people were recovering, and at our highest rate of infection just before easter, around 1600 people had been affected. But, the pandemic then began to fall, with Icelander´s having the quietest, loneliest easter weekend imaginable, and a full 6 weeks later, the total number of people infected with Covid stands only at 1806. Today the numbers show only 10 deaths, with a mere 2 active cases left. The statistics and numbers on covid.is website are worth checking out for more facts and stats and to keep up with the rest of Iceland´s recovery news.
After the first week of April, we were still holding our breath. The numbers were going down but there were still new cases every day. It wasn’t´t until May 4th that we saw the first real light at the end of the tunnel shine, and at midnight that day the gathering ban was increased to 50 people and salons and some spas could reopen. Many people went for a manicure or to meet their chiropractor, and lots of sanitiser and latex was still floating around. At midnight on May 18th, the public pools reopened, and lines of people (with 2m distance between each other) waited outside thru the night to get in for an overdue soak. The pools are restricted to 50% capacity until tomorrow, and then 75% capacity from June 1 until June 15 when they can open at 100% capacity. June 15th will also be the day tourists may begin trickling in, with a promised test-on-arrival system put into place to replace the mandatory 2 week quarantine currently in place for all new arrivals to Iceland.
On May 25, the gathering ban was increased to 200 people and public gyms and bars could finally reopen. The 2m social distancing rule has become a guideline instead, and people are asked to follow it if they want, but restaurants and bars are not expected to accommodate the rule for everyone. With 200 person events now allowed, there seems to be a funeral in every church, and some postponed baptisms, birthday parties and weddings are beginning to fill up the empty venues.
Though Covid is not over, Reykjavik feels a bit like Covid never happened. It´s hard to hear all the struggles others around the world are still in, and watching the number of cases still grow some places. Even in Iceland we had 1 Covid-case confirmed only two days ago, and though it wasn´t announced on the radio every hour like it used to be, we are all still aware. Icelander´s are tough, and being resilient means we are still careful, but its nice to start being able to touch and hug people again. Not everyone is there yet, but things have almost returned to normal in my day to day life. And what impeccable timing – I believe I speak for all locals when I say we are so ready for summer, especially a whole summer in Iceland without tour guiding and no tourist traffic in all our favourite places!
Here´s the list I made during quarantine of what was actually happening, day to day. I hope it´s at least amusing, if not relatable, to some of you.
- Counting grey hairs. Looking too closely in the mirror and realising I´m going grey. I´ve gone from none to multiple.
- Making amazing brunches, with all kinds of liquids, including champagne. It´s a great reason to get out of bed.
- Baking banana bread. Lots of it, and a different recipe each time to keep it fun. I tried normal, chocolate gluten free and vegan.
- Playing in the kids park on the handle bars, hanging upside down. In running clothes.
- Avoiding people on my bike, trying to keep a 2m passing space and almost always running into the curb or onto the grass.
- Dreaming about going to the pool, but they´re all closed. Thankfully I have access to a hottub in the backyard of an empty house in Kopavogur.
- Sitting on my yoga mat, mindfully thinking about doing yoga. It’s a form of meditation.
- Opening 30 bottles of wine, of which 15 were off. Then drinking the good ones. I´m best at that.
- I made an advertisement on the Icelandic online classifieds to find horses to ride. (If you or anyone you know is in isolation that has a horse, I can go to the stable for them!)
- Looking for dogs to walk and finding out that everyone is walking their own dog these days. Hiking without a dog is almost as much fun. But if you or anyone you know has a dog they cant walk, let me know!
I’ve been working with Backroads for a couple of summers now, and this was my second winter. It’s been a good winter – snow storms, minus 10 degrees and plenty of northern lights. The day light is short, with sunrise after 11 and sunset before 4, so there’s a small window of opportunity to be active outside. We’re meant to hike, snowshoe, glacier walk or horseback ride, and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. But when it does, its a winter wonderland out here.
I had a week of trip preparation, where me and the trip expert practiced all the hikes and visited all of our vendors. Hotels, restaurants and farms took us in with open arms and we had luck with weather almost every day. Once the first trip started, we lucked out with northern lights 5 out of 5 nights, and the trip couldn’t have gone better.
The second trip ran over the worst storm Iceland has seen in years, with power being cut off across the north of Iceland, and up to 4 meters of snow burying horses alive. We were on a small spit of the south coast where the only open road in the whole country was a 10km stretch of highway 1 exactly around us. It was incredible to be able to stick to the plan, hiking and glacier walking despite the rest of the country being on lock down, and our only inconvenience was staying an extra night at Hotel Ranga since we couldn’t get to Umi Hotel.
The third trip was over New Years, and we rang in the New Year together at Hotel Ranga with our group and the staff that have become more and more like family after so many nights at the hotel. There were two guests with birthdays on January 1st, so there was plenty to celebrate, and we saw Northern Lights in the morning before sunrise on our way onto Solheimajokull.
The next trip won’t be until March and April, when the daylight hours are triple what they have been so far. It’s better for flexibility and certainly makes driving thru snowstorms easier, but there’s a certain charm in visiting Iceland in its darkest hours, and the feedback from guests has always been rewarding – what a magical country we live in to be able to enjoy it in the midst of horrible winter storms and still come home smiling.
New Years eve, and the few days leading up to it, are very explosive, literally. Icelanders buy hundreds and hundreds of tons of fireworks and explode them downtown, in backyards, harbours, farms, you name it. Reykjavik is the only city in the world where I can actually hear midnight coming, as the fireworks get more and more intense around Hallgrimskirkja, the loudest climax is the moment when the New Year has arrived.
With 26 days of Christmas, there are a lot of traditions that Icelandic people keep up to fill the dark winter season. There’s even a small Christmas Market ´Jólaþorpið´started in Hafnafjordur, and free ice skating in Ingolfstorg downtown for all the days in December. Then of course there are the famous, or infamous, Yule lads, the 13 Christmas elves who each have a special, mischievous role to play. There´s the hungry ones: Sausage Stealer, Skyr Gobbler, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Meat Hook, who loves smoked lamb, and Stubby, who likes eating pan crusts.
There´s the creepy ones, Sheep harassing Sheep-Cote-Clod, Door Sniffer and the Window Peeper. Then there’s the annoying ones: the noisy Door Slammer, Gully Gawk who likes to jump out and scare people, and Candle Sneaker, who’s also hungry because they’re used to stealing candles made of animal fat and eating them.
These fine examples of Icelandic folklore are the sons of a large, ugly, child-eating troll named Gryla, and her black cat eats Children who don’t receive any new clothes for Christmas. The Yule lads are not all bad – they bring down a present to put in your shoe, one by one, for the 13 days leading up to Christmas, unless you misbehave – then you get a potato or a piece of coal. Then 13 days after Christmas, the Yule lads return back to Gryla in her mountain, and the last day of Christmas is Jan 6, but its only a few weeks to wait until Thorrablot, Icelands other, rather unappealing, winter tradition.
Thorrablot used to be a pagan festival, dedicated to pagan gods in the fourth month of winter, previously known as Thorri. It’s basically a midwinter party (end-Jan to mid Feb in the modern day calendar) dedicated to eating sour and fermented foods, the same ram testicles, sheep head, rotten shark, liver and blood sausages as the vikings ate before the modernisation or Christianisation of Iceland. Its also a drunken time, when farmers and fishermen and city folk alike gather in huge groups (a dinner for hundreds of people sometimes), organising with the next county or community to make sure they don’t hold the festival on the same night, so that everyone can go to more Thorrablots and drink enough beer and brennivin to wash all the sour food down and hangover away. Sounds like a blast, right?
My favourite Þorrablóts are happening around Feb 1st in the north of Iceland, be sure to check out Varmahlíð or Hunaver´s schedule, or just search Thorrablot in Facebook events to be sure to find the one closest to you. Or, if sour food isn´t for you, there´s always hottubs and the outdoor bathing culture we all love and need to get us through a long Icelandic winter.